Her PhD on Parkinson’s disease didn’t go exactly as planned, but in the end the difficulties made Liesbeth Aerts a happier scientist.
Guest contributor Liesbeth Aerts
One year ago today, I found myself in a lecture theatre, presenting my research to a thesis jury. During the years leading up to that moment, there were many days when I worried whether I was ever going to make it that far. When I finally did, most of all, I felt relieved.
Like many others, I had imagined my PhD differently. I was prepared for the hard work and long hours. I thought that if I gave it my all, I would be a successful scientist. My ambitions took a blow when faced with failure after failure. For well over a year, I felt like a fraud, having fooled my supervisors and myself into thinking that I had what it took to become a good scientist. Looking back, I’d tell my younger self to take it easy.
Cut yourself some slack
Even Nobel prize winners were first-year students once. They messed up their experiments, needed help and most likely suffered just as much as you did. Don’t expect to do everything right the first time around. No matter how hard you work and how motivated you are, you’ll need to accept that becoming better takes time and requires failure.
One mistake at a time, I got better, and as time went by, I realised others were making educated guesses just like I was. They too didn’t understand everything during seminars. Could it be that, just maybe, I wasn’t the dumbest person in the room?
Don’t apologise for your ignorance – fix it
It takes a thick skin to not be intimated in the current academic climate, and it took me way too long to get over it. You shouldn’t apologise for not knowing something, but there’s no excuse for staying uninformed. Just ask and learn – it’s really that simple. Yes, exposing your ignorance makes you vulnerable, but it’s the best way to learn and the only way to break down the unproductive cycle of peer-to-peer intimidation.
Having realised my lab mates were also human, I felt a little less out of place. But my research was still going nowhere, and as my efforts became increasingly desperate I became more and more unhappy. No matter how hard I worked, I didn’t progress, and the resulting frustration was something I was totally unprepared to deal with.
Discoveries are made by exploring the unknown, and this quest is exactly what attracts people to science in the first place. However, when seemingly trivial things don’t work, your results are totally inconclusive or you can’t replicate published data, frustration is inevitable. Troubleshooting drains time and energy away from your actual scientific research, but it’s still part of the job. You need to get comfortable that more often than not, you’ll be stuck. Perhaps you’ll have an enlightening stroke of insight, but most of the time, you just have to try different things and see what works.
During that difficult period, I got an amazing job offer at the Flemish Ministry of Health. I had to choose: take the exciting new path and bury the PhD dream, or continue on a road I felt was going nowhere. When I finally decided not to quit, even my mother was surprised.
Being presented with a way out helped me straighten out my priorities. I thought about my long-term goals and asked whether a PhD degree would give me an advantage. It would. I also reflected on how hard I had been fighting just to stay in the game and decided to draw the line. I made a conscious effort to read less papers and more novels, and avoided working during weekends at all costs. I no longer let the outcome of my experiments define my worth as a scientist. I hoped that would be enough to someday get my degree, and if it wasn’t, at least my attempts were not at the expense of my happiness.
Life isn’t always fair and despite your best efforts, things may not work out as you hoped. This doesn’t mean you should accept your situation or quit. It means you need to find your intrinsic motivation. If you no longer know why you’re working so hard, you’re better off pursuing other goals.
I had many things to be positive about. I was working in a great department with lots of opportunities. I had my own grant and really helpful supervisors and colleagues. I never once got bored and I don’t think many people can say that about their job. And yet, despite these privileges, a lot of the time I was very unhappy. I guess I simply didn’t understand what success looked like. It took me a long time to realise that even the most accomplished people feel unsuccessful a lot of the time.
Now that I’m starting in a new field, I feel like a beginner again in many ways. I’m learning, but this time I’m going about it in a completely different way. I no longer allow myself to be intimidated and am not afraid to ask questions. I try to be more patient with myself when solving problems. Having a better understanding of academic research and also of myself, I am much more relaxed about my professional ambitions.
Thinking about how far I have come, it’s encouraging knowing there is so much more I can do and learn. I might not reach all the goals that I’ll decide to pursue, but I can try, learn, erase and start over. This freedom to explore and experiment does not scare me, it excites me! Perhaps I became a true scientist after all?
Liesbeth Aerts obtained her PhD at VIB and KU Leuven, Belgium, and now studies dementia at the University of New South Wales in Australia. She combines her passion for science and communication as a writer and editor at Highlight science writing.